Editor's Note: Religion Editor Carla Hinton traveled to the Holy Land as part of an interfaith group from Oklahoma. Here, she writes about the group's experiences as they explored Israel together.
ISRAEL — The picturesque hill in the Old City of Jerusalem was the perfect place for Oklahoma Christians, Muslims and Jews to begin their tour of a land rife with meaning for each of their faith traditions.
The Jews and Christians in the group knew it as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, where God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the home of the "Holy of Holies," the most sacred part of the First Temple, according to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.
The Muslims knew it as the Haram el Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) or the Dome of the Rock, where, according to the Quran, the Prophet Mohammed was lifted to heaven and returned to Earth to continue his teachings.
As the Oklahomans walked around the holy site admiring the architectural features in different areas of the plaza, guides shared the different theological histories that converged there.
The guides also explained that over the years, there had been episodes of violence at the site. And notably, in 1969, a Christian man from Australia set a fire in the Al-Aqsa mosque adjacent to the Dome of the Rock.
So, the tourists from Oklahoma saw armed Israeli guards walking along the periphery, their presence designed to serve as a deterrent to any would-be troublemakers.
Though the site had theological significance for the entire group — the Holy of Holies is thought to be under the Dome of the Rock — only the Muslims would be able to venture inside the ornate Islamic shrine considered one of Islam's most holy sites.
The Old City of Jerusalem is under the control of the State of Israel, but the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock is managed by an Islamic Waqf or Islamic religious committee. The chief rabbi of the Old City has warned non-Muslims, specifically Jews, not to go there to pray.
The Muslim Oklahomans chose to forego the opportunity to go inside the shrine because the entire tour group wouldn't be allowed in. The Muslims, five people from Oklahoma City and Tulsa, decided to visit the site later.
It was a eye-opening welcome to the rich spiritual heritage and the complexities of the Holy Land.
Good interfaith intentions
What happened when the Oklahoma Religions United interfaith group traveled to the one place in the world where their faith traditions have collided for centuries?
Rabbi Vered Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, said she proposed the interfaith trip as a way to help clarify issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
She said many people in America have formed opinions about the troubling situation but they have never experienced Israel first hand. What better way to learn what is really going on there than to visit both Israel and the Palestinian territories? What better way to wrap one's mind around the complexities of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the Palestinian refugee camps than to visit them?
So, in partnership with the Rev. William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, Harris reached out to Wellington, Fla.-based Mejdi Tours to coordinate a tour of the Holy Land that would allow Oklahomans to experience for themselves the situations that have arisen due to the ongoing conflict.
Along the way, the group would get to experience the holy sites significant to all three of the Abrahamic faiths and sample Middle Eastern cuisine, such as falafel and baklava.
The Oklahomans represented the Judaic and Islamic faiths as well as several Christian denominations, including Catholic, United Methodist, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
The visit to the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock helped set the stage for the eight-day "dual narrative" tour given by two knowledgeable guides. The two men, one an Israeli Jew and the other a Jordanian Arab, struck up a running commentary as the Oklahomans visited site after site and heard personal perspectives of people on various sides of the ongoing conflict.
The sometimes perplexing accounts and situations fraught with decades-old religious tension did not deter group members from experiencing the spiritual.
The Rev. Evan Taylor, outreach minister of East Side Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tulsa, said he experienced a profound moment of faith while he stood with the group in the Temple Mount plaza.
"To know that I was walking through those columns where they told us that Jesus probably walked, that was a chill moment," Taylor said. "I just wanted to go away and cry for a minute. It was overwhelming."
"Israeli-Palestinian conflict" is a term with which each member of the Oklahoma group was familiar.
The 22 Oklahomans talked with leaders in one of the Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria and also spoke with an American of Palestinian descent who now resides in East Jerusalem.
In one of the most moving presentations of the trip, the group listened to two fathers — one an Israeli Jew and the other a Palestinian Muslim — who have been brought together in the worst sort of way: both have had a young daughter murdered in the ongoing clash.
But each conversation about the situation seemed to begin or end on this note: "It's complicated."
This didn't seem to be a cop out but a simple statement that fittingly described this complex area of the Middle East.
There was no question that the situation was, is, complicated. Questions seemed to bring about more questions than answers.
Two-state solution or one-state solution? If the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed to divide into two states, could they agree on the borders? And if they continued as one state, the Jewish State of Israel, how could the Jews maintain a majority when there are more Palestinians within the state's borders?
Should more Israeli settlements be allowed in the West Bank areas where Palestinians now reside and hope to have their own state? What is the United States' role in the conflict?
What would it take to end the hostilities that have destabilized the region for years?
An example of ongoing unrest came in the form of an attack in East Jerusalem when the Oklahomans were staying at a hotel in that area, although they spent the day of the incident about 10 miles away in Ramallah.
Four Israeli soldiers were killed and more than a dozen people were wounded after a Palestinian man rammed a truck into the middle of a group milling about a popular walkway. Israeli police called the incident a terror attack.
The Israelis and Palestinians who spoke to the interfaith group said there are no easy answers and there probably will never be.
But there were two things most of them agreed upon.
First, that the situation as it stands now is untenable.
Second, they still have hope that peace will reign in the land someday.